09 July 2010, Nottingham Women’s Centre
We had a brilliant turn out at our most recent discussion in Nottingham.
Our participants included Melanie from Nottingham Community & Voluntary Service who is coordinating a network of local women’s organisations; Debbie, Emma, Lisa and Valerie from SHINE, a floating support service for women escaping domestic violence; Elly, Ursula, Shirley, Karen, Sally and Angela from Framework Supported Housing, an accommodation project for women 16 years and over; Anne from the City Council’s Community Equality Forum and Anette, Chief Executive of Nottingham Women’s Centre, highlighting the extensive and important network of women’s support services and groups that exist in the city.
Also joining in were Teodora and Eva, PhD students at the University of Nottingham and members of its Women’s Network who were equally enthusiastic about the growing tide of gender activism and awareness that has emerged in the city in recent years and who are currently organising a Feminism and Teaching Symposium to be held at the University next April. We also welcomed Trisha and Angie, who were keen to join in the opportunity to voice their views in the company of other women.
With such an enthusiastic and committed group of women, our discussion was a lively one, which took in a range of different topics.
To join in with the conversation, please share your comments by clicking on ‘leave a comment’ above.
The recession, budget and cuts
Nottingham has an extensive network of women’s support services and organisations, which Melanie supports through her work with Nottingham Community & Voluntary Service, and yet there are concerns these vital services are under threat from cuts in government spending, and this will have a hugely detrimental impact on the lives of women who use them.
Melanie: I’m angry about the fact that women are going to bear the brunt of the fallout from the financial mess we’re in and it worries me that we have a government with few female MPs to speak out for us. The same locally – who’s speaking up for women? Women are underrepresented at the higher levels of local decision-making, for example in the city council and the PCT.
Karen: Women will be disproportionately hurt by the cuts. The jobs women do are the ones that are most likely to be cut, the caring jobs, nurses.
Valerie: I’m concerned that the cuts will not only affect women financially, but will cost lives, if there are cuts to support services. There has been a lot of funding put into domestic violence services for women over the past few years, but now vital services such as witness support are in danger of being cut.
Melanie: I think women’s refuges could be at risk. I hear rumours of cuts, including my own job, but no one is sitting down and talking about how we could make the cuts we need to make and still protect the most vulnerable. I’m worried that an open debate about the impact of the cuts is not happening and it’s not going to happen until it’s too late.
On violence against women
Anne: One thing that has changed for the better over the past three decades has been the increase in awareness of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse and child sexual abuse. We have a lot of good support services for women in Nottingham.
Teodora: We have this hysteria over paedophilia, but paedophiles are seen as these ‘strange men’. It’s disconnected from the husbands, uncles, and fathers who are committing child sexual abuse and domestic violence in the home.
Teodora: Even amongst my feminist networks, rape is still spoken about on the abstract level, we don’t talk about our personal experiences of it.
Eva: Going out in the city centre at night can be a nightmare.
Teodora: I’ve been on the dance floor and had men drag me off.
On domestic roles
Valerie: Even though I go out to work, I also still have to keep the house clean and look after the kids because I’m a woman. I really think marriage can be like slavery. Why is it assumed that I should do the housework, just ‘cos I’ve got a vagina? If I had someone doing all my cooking and cleaning for me, I wouldn’t want to give it up.
Melanie: Women are expected to do a double job.
Valerie: We perpetrate this – if a bloke is doing the washing up then I’d come in and go “oh, he’s doing the dishes for you”.
Angie: It’s that “for you” bit that’s the problem.
Lisa: Like when he says “oh, I babysat for you” and it’s his own kid.
Ursula: It’s like the father whose wife has died and who brings up the kids alone, and everyone says “hasn’t he done well?”, but women do that all the time.
Valerie: There are a small percentage of men who’ll do their fair share but we still have a long way to go.
Angie: Boys need to be educated to respect each other and other people. I hear young boys talking, and am dismayed at the sexist attitudes they pick up.
Eva: I do feel sorry for teenage boys because they also experience a lot of peer pressure.
Ursula: There are a lot of good books for nursery and junior age children.
Sally: This should follow through in the teaching. School has to follow through and do non-gendered things. But the girls still want to be princesses…
Karen: The teachers need to be aware of what they do, like the teacher who read a story about food and cooking and then told a little boy that he shouldn’t play with the toy kitchen because he was a boy.
Melanie: It starts so young, girls and boys being told that they’re different. I mean, if you look in the Argos catalogue for a toy then it’s all divided into girls’ toys and boys’ toys.
It was also noted how much more segregated toy shops have become in selling certain toys to boys and others to girls and how we are still uncomfortable with giving children toys associated with the opposite sex to play with.
Melanie: Is it because we fear children will turn out gay? Now that homosexuality is more prominent, we may be more likely to think children could be gay, whereas a few years ago it wasn’t so much of an issue.
Teodora: Relationships are still unequal. The old double standards are still there. Women aren’t expected to ask men out, men are expected to take the lead in relationships.
Eva: My male friends are quite blasé about the number of women they’ve slept with, but women who admit this are treated differently.
On the differences between men and women
Anette: There are differences between men and women.
Jessica: But there’s also huge overlap.
Trisha: And in between there is learned behaviour.
Anette: And there’s the stereotypes and the thing I really hate – the sexualisation of society.
Melanie: I heard someone speak recently about the different way men and women look at job adverts. Men tend to see what they can do and think that they can learn the rest, but women tend to focus on the criteria they don’t meet. It really resonated with me and I think that’s perhaps one of the things that holds us back.
Anette: I’ve worked for female managers, and some of them have been more aggressive than the male mangers. Perhaps it’s to prove themselves.
Valerie: I’ve had good male managers.
Anette: I have no idea what it feels like to be a man. I can’t put myself into the body of a man.
Valerie: I don’t walk around feeling “I’m a woman”.
Melanie: What’s a ‘woman’ supposed to feel like?
On stereotypes and the “norm”
Karen: I had blond hair for a while, and I found that I was treated differently. With dark hair I’m taken seriously.
Melanie: We use stereotypes to help us make sense of the world. But we should recognise this, should challenge ourselves not to make snap judgements. There needs to be more education around changing how people think, and this should start at school.
Shirley: We have to work people out and put them in boxes, we’re not comfortable with not being able to work out what someone’s sex or sexuality is.
Sally: Children want to conform. My son doesn’t like football, and he had a hard time until he discovered he liked rugby. The word “gay” is used as an insult and it reinforces the negativity. Children use that word before they know what it means, they say “it’s so gay”.
Shirley: Say “it’s so het” back to them!
Teodora: There’s such a skewed perspective as to what is supposed to be normal. Sharon Osbourne without make-up is deviant, even though that’s what normal women in their sixties look like.
On beauty & the sexualisation of young women
There was a general feeling amongst our group of women that things had got worse when it came to pressures to live up to narrow beauty ideals and a concern was shared over the increased sexualisation of younger women, mainly via the media.
Melanie: I watched The Sex Education Show recently, and some of the girls on the programme, when shown images of naked women, were so relieved to see what real women looked like.
Valerie: It concerns me when I hear the younger women I work with constantly talking about dieting and what they look like. There’s this pressure to be perfect. It’s getting worse.
Melanie: Young girls have always dressed up in mum’s high heels. But the display of lad’s mags in supermarkets concerns me. There’s a very bad combination of sexualised clothing for young girls and the culture spread by lad’s mags.
Valerie: Porn is in the everyday attitudes we digest. Clothing for young women looks more like a uniform for lap dancers.
Anette: In terms of what feminism fought for, I think we have gone backward.
Trisha: I feel much better in my own skin as an older woman. I felt more bombarded by the external world when I was younger. It’s a shame I couldn’t have felt more comfortable in myself when I was younger.
Anette: By the time you get to 50, it doesn’t matter to you so much.
On role models
Valerie: Young women aspire to different things. One of the girls in my family wants to be a WAG. She’s serious about it, spends her time at the clubs where footballers go, does her hair and her clothes all the time. Won’t be long until there’s a GCSE in it! But is it just the same as my generation? My mother wanted me to be a secretary and marry my boss.
Elly: It’s buying into the celebrity culture and similar to the old idea that women should be ‘kept’ by a man.
Shirley: It’s making women dependent.
Karen: What happens when it goes wrong?
Melanie: I think the media have had a big part to play. Young women aspire to be like their role models, like Lady Gaga. But why in all of her videos does she have to be dancing around in her underwear?
Karen: Male sports stars or pop stars beat up their wives or are horrible to the people they’re supposed to love, but they’re allowed to get away with it because they’re heroes.
Anne: The media does have an effect on women’s aspirations. Look at the way the media always spitefully attacked every female minister in the Labour Government.
On careers and education
Valerie explained about her daughter going to a college open evening to find out more about business studies, but there was a general expectation by two of the male members of staff she approached that she’d want to do hair and beauty.
Shirley: Women are ousted from courses by being made to feel that they shouldn’t be there.
Elly: Discrimination doesn’t have to be blatant. Look at the trainers and the teachers – what are they doing? Are they giving girls the message that they shouldn’t be there?
Eva and Teodora were concerned with women’s experiences in higher education and academia. Although their department at Nottingham is very good, in academia more generally, they felt patriarchal structures and old boys networks were still very much alive. They also noted how feminism is largely absent from teaching, in terms of what is taught and how it’s taught, which they hope to explore in the symposium they are holding next Spring.
Teodora: Political theory is all about dead white males. Women have to try twice as hard to do something new. If a man comes up with a new approach then it’s edgy, but if a women does the same then no one wants to do it.
Melanie: Jobs which are generally done by men are more high-status.
Anne: The banking industry is very male-dominated and the stories you hear of sex discrimination in the industry are disgusting.
Teodora: I think class is still an important issue. It doesn’t matter how good a degree you get, you’re still more likely to get a good job if you’ve been privately educated and have the right connections. A lot of women leave university and take jobs they are overqualified for. Out of my friends, the male graduates have jobs in their fields, whilst a lot of women are working as waitresses or are unemployed. Male graduates seem to be able to stay at home, whilst women are made to feel guilty if they aren’t doing anything.
Anne: There is currently an exhibition on in Nottingham of famous people from the city, and despite being curated by a woman, there are only three women in the exhibition. And yet there are lots of women in Nottingham’s history, there’s been a Women’s History walk in the city.
Melanie: The f-word has many connotations, some of them negative.
Angie: What about feminist men? There are some out there.
Trisha: When I lived in Milan many years ago, there was a group of women who produced a magazine called Effe. There, feminism was very political, more militant and generally different from the “freedom of the female” type of feminism in the UK at that time. I felt that the women in Italy were a stage ahead, that they’d absorbed something important. But it’s not a country where I could be at ease as a woman, and even now, even the new generation of Italian women are seen almost as second class citizens. I feel better, feel more at ease in this country.
Trisha: I get annoyed at Miss or Mrs. Why should anyone know? I think all women should use Ms.
How do we change things?
Melanie: What power do we have to change things?
Shirley: A lot of women don’t have a voice, they don’t have a lot of confidence. After a while, you can start to think, “I can’t be bothered”, and you just continue to moan to your work colleagues. You can try and get women in positions of power on your side, but a lot of them have to be like men.
Karen: Women-only spaces are really important, so women have a space where they are free to just be and don’t have to worry about being stared at by men and can express themselves.
Elly: Just speaking to other women about things can have a positive effect because a woman can then leave feeling empowered. It can have a trickle down effect.
Shirley: We’re the converted. How do you reach out to others?
Sally: Change has to start in school. Lots of kids don’t have role models.
Teodora: We need to start having conversations with men too, it’s okay talking amongst ourselves, but we also need to educate men, feminism can help men become better people.
Anne: The City Council has an Older People’s Strategy but there is no consideration as to how older men and older women’s experiences are different. We need to get more focus on gender, and not just on this particular strategy but in everything.
Karen: Feminism has become irrelevant to young women. We need to make feminism relevant to younger women and dispel the stereotypes. Not about being political, or hating men, but about being equal.
What do you think?
Please feel free to leave your comments and views on what we discussed by clicking on ‘leave a comment’ above. It would be really good to hear from more women living, working and studying in Nottingham about the issues affecting you and about the different groups and activities taking place which are supporting and championing women in the city.